John 11:1-16 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. 10 But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” 11 After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, 15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
This is a remarkable passage on all kinds of levels. I know that by saying that almost every week, it loses some of its punch, but this is a remarkable passage. It’s stands out to me because of how clearly it shows both Jesus’ genuine humanity and His genuine love.
Ideally, to best see these things, we’d be able to deal with John 11 all at once. It’s one story that needs to be seen together to really appreciate any of the individual pieces. However, as you can see, it’s a long passage and there’s a lot going on in it. For those reasons, we’re going to need to break it up a bit. This week we’ll focus on the first sixteen verses. And in those, we’ll focus on its description of the exceptional love Jesus for a trio of siblings. We’ll consider the fact of Jesus’ love for Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, the origin of that love, four glorious expressions of it, its nature, and its future.
The big idea of all of this is that Jesus has a genuine, personal, practical love for all who trust in Him. And the big takeaways for us are to focus on understanding the nature of that love, in order that we might walk more fully in it, and in order that we might grow in it for those around us.
JESUS LOVED LAZARUS AND HIS SISTERS
As I mentioned in my introduction, this passage is primarily about Jesus’ love for three individuals and the way that love is inseparably connected to the glory of God. Let’s begin to consider those things by establishing the fact of Jesus’ love for them.
The Fact of Jesus’ Love
God is both transcendent and immanent. He is both beyond us and near to us. He is both outside and inside His creation. Most of us tend to emphasize one of those truths over the other (just like God’s sovereignty and our agency). Either we think of God primarily in terms of His holiness, His set-apartness, and the ways He is different from us, or we think primarily in terms of His sameness, nearness, and personal friendship with us.
For those in camp transcendence, passages like John 3:16 fit neatly in explaining God’s love. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” According to this verse, God loves “the world” in a broad, general, and even eternal way. And that’s certainly true. God’s love for His creatures is transcendent.
But what we have in John 11:1-16 (all of 11 really) is the kind of passage those in camp immanence like to point out. It doesn’t describe a generic love of Jesus for all the people of “the world” or even just the people of a specific town. It paints a clear and remarkable picture of Jesus’ love for three particular people in a deeply personal and practical way. John 11 is the story of Jesus love for each of them individually and sincerely.
The fact of Jesus’ love is explicitly stated twice in the first five verses, first by Mary and Martha, Lazarus’s sisters, and then by John.
1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha … 3 So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” And again in v.5 we read, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.”
We’ll come to the origin, expressions, and nature of Jesus’ love for these three in just a moment, but let’s not be quick to move past the fact that the eternally existing Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, the light of the world, the Word of God, the one through whom all things were made, the Lamb of God, the miracle-worker, the temple-cleanser, the one who knows everything in a man’s heart, the Christ, the one with all authority, the bread of life, the one who is one with the Father, the door, and the good shepherd—the transcendent one—also loved these three people in very real, personal, and specific ways—as the immanent one. Jesus really, truly loved Lazarus, Mary, and Martha.
And as we slow down to make sure we really understand that, let’s also remember that Jesus loves everyone who hopes in Him like that as well. If your faith is in Jesus, the fact of Jesus’ love for you is indisputable according to the Bible. Neither your thoughts, feelings, words, or actions, nor those of anyone or anything else, can change the fact of Jesus’ real, personal, deep love for you.
Grace, as you wake up each morning, let your first thought increasingly be, “I am loved by Jesus.” Fight to make that thought echo in your mind throughout the day as feelings of doubt and guilt and loneliness and shame and fear and inadequacy and anxiety and discouragement creep in. He’s near me (always), He knows me (good and bad), and He loves me (unconditionally). That’s always true for all who are in Jesus, and truly believing it and receiving it changes everything.
The Origin of Jesus’ Love
The fact of Jesus’ love for the siblings (and us) is clear. Before we come to the specifics of Jesus’ love for Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, let’s back up just a bit to consider the little we know about the origin of that friendship and love.
For the last several chapters in John’s Gospel (for nearly five months now), we’ve seen confrontation after confrontation between Jesus and “the Jews,” followed by rejection after rejection of Jesus by the Jews. That might tempt us to think that Jesus’ ministry was marked by nothing but confrontation and rejection. Clearly, this passage stands in stark contrast to that notion. For that reason, we might wonder how this loving friendship began.
Interestingly, John doesn’t tell us. V.2 sounds like it might, but as we’ll see in just a bit, it refers to a future action of Mary (chapter 12), not an earlier one. Truth be told, we’re not sure how Jesus came to meet and love this family. It’s possible that Luke describes the initial encounter in his Gospel.
Luke 10:38-42 Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. 40 But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, 42 but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”
The timing of this passage in Luke as it relates to our passage in John isn’t clear. Likewise, Lazarus isn’t specifically mentioned by Luke. Nevertheless, as John makes clear, Jesus had met this family in Bethany at some earlier point and over time, in ways not recorded in any of the Gospels, developed a friendship and love for this family throughout his ministry. It is precisely because Jesus and His followers faced so much rejection and persecution that such a deep love could develop so quickly.
And in this, once again, Grace, is another aspect of Jesus’ life and ministry that we must follow. We are to give ourselves to sharing the good news of Jesus with the world and to sharing our hearts with them as well. The Apostle Paul worded it this way, “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:8).
Following Jesus’ example in ministry is not merely repeating the same facts that Jesus shared. It’s also genuinely loving those with whom we share them. It’s pursuing fellow followers of Jesus and genuine gospel friendships with them. And for the most part, that happens by going through the ups and downs of following Jesus together over time. I’m so thankful to share that with so many of you, over so many years.
The Nature and Expressions of Jesus’ Love
We’ve seen the fact and origin of Jesus’ love for this family. Let’s now consider its nature and expressions. In this passage we see four particular expressions of Jesus’ love, and in them the nature of Jesus’ love is seen.
- Jesus loved this family by caring about them in their suffering. This first aspect of Jesus’ love for Lazarus and his sisters is mostly implied in our passage. The fact that He determined to go to them shows that Jesus cared deeply for them. The fact that He did so even though, as His disciples pointed out in v.8, they lived near the place where the Jews had just tried to stone Him, shows it even more clearly. But what is implied in our passage will become explicit in vs.33-36.
John 11:33-36 When Jesus [arrived in Bethany] saw [Martha] weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled… 35 Jesus wept. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
Genuine love is never indifferent to others, especially in their suffering. People suffer in all kinds of ways for all kinds of reasons, so knowing what it looks like to care well for someone can be tricky (and not always what they think it should look like), but love always cares. It is always concerned. It always comes with a measure of sympathy and compassion. Jesus loved Lazarus and his family so, when He received news of their dire predicament, He cared about them in their suffering.
- Jesus loved this family by helping them in their suffering. Love means caring for people in their suffering and caring means moving toward people to help in their suffering. Again, the fullness of the care Jesus provided won’t become clear until the end of the chapter, but there are hints here. Jesus said that “This illness does not lead to death” and “I go to awaken him.” As you know, there’s a bit of irony in these statements, and they’re only true in indirect ways. Jesus would go to this family, comfort the sisters, and ensure that this illness would not ultimately end Lazarus’s life by “awakening” Lazarus from his “sleep”. And in these things Jesus would express His love for Lazarus and his sisters by helping them in their suffering.
Just as it can be difficult to know what form our care ought to take sometimes, it can also be difficult to know how to best help those we love. Difficult or not, love always moves toward those who are hurting. I’m consistently amazed to watch as so many do that so well at Grace Church—especially the women of Grace.
- The sacrificial ways so many ladies at Grace have served Chuck and Jen.
- The coming alongside so many moms and kids in Jesus name through TFG.
- Before COVID, Jack used to wander around the hospital looking for people to visit an pray with.
- The help so many have provided to the Westfalls.
Jesus love for Lasarus’s family was expressed in His care for them and His helping of them. Our love must look the same.
- Jesus loved Lazarus by being fearless in His love. In another interesting interlude, Jesus taught the disciples something important about the nature of love in general and His love for Lazarus in particular.
At the end of chapter 10, in Jerusalem, which is not far from Bethany, many Jews sought to stone Jesus. For that reason, because His time had not yet come, Jesus journeyed to the North to avoid their treachery. The message from Lazarus’s sisters was a summons back to the area in which those same angry Jews would have access to Him. In other words, going toward Lazarus would necessarily take Jesus back to danger.
Nevertheless, according to v.7, “after this [Jesus] said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”
Aware of what this would mean, “8The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?”
In other words, the disciples were afraid. We’re not told exactly how Jesus escaped the stoning and attempt to arrest Him at the end of chapter 10, but from the disciples question here it seems plain that it wasn’t because they made some kind of peace treaty. The Jews were still violently angry at Jesus, the disciples knew it, and they were understandably nervous about heading back there.
In a much smaller way, I’ll never forget the very first mission trip I went on. It was to the Middle East. After handing out Bibles for several hours, two of us were detained and taken to a police station to be questioned. I never got the impression that we were in any real physical danger (much less stoning), and they only kept us for about an hour before letting us go with a warning, but I distinctly remember the feeling of unease that filled me as we prepared to go back out (to a different spot) the next day. It’s hard not to imagine the disciples feeling like that multiplied by a lot.
It is good to consider what love looks like that in that kind of situation.
9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. 10 But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”
Jesus’ response is somewhat cryptic, but there are probably two main things for us to see in it. First, Jesus was only going to be with them for a short while longer (during the day). He is the light of the world and in a very short amount of time He would be crucified, the thirteenth hour would come. In this way, His point was that the disciples needn’t fear while He was with them. He would keep them from stumbling.
It is the same for you and me today, Grace. But the good news is that there is no thirteenth hour for us. That’s what Jesus meant when He said that it is better for His followers when He leaves (16:7-8) and that He will be with us always (Matthew 28:20). Jesus is with us always and therefore we need not fear. He is the light who has overcome the darkness. His presence frees us up to love others regardless of the cost of doing so. So love well, Grace. Love all the way through. Love in the knowledge that insofar as you are in Jesus, it is always day, you are always in the light, and Jesus will keep you from stumbling.
The second main thing for us to see is that loving in the ways God has called us to is always the safest place and the shortest path to the fullest joy. Discomfort and even death are not the ultimate things to be avoided, faithlessness and lovelessness are. When we come to truly believe what Jesus modeled in going back into the fire—that loving all the way to the end is safer and more joyful than stopping short or detouring—then, and only then, are we able to love as we ought.
- Jesus loved Lazarus above all by maximizing his view of the glory of God. The forth, final, and most significant expression of Jesus’ love for Lazarus is that He did exactly the opposite of what everyone wanted, in order to accomplish something infinitely greater. Everyone wanted Jesus to come quickly and heal Lazarus before He died. And at first, it sounded like that’s what He was going to do.
4 But when Jesus heard [of Lazarus’s illness] he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
Isn’t that how we always pray? “God be glorified in healing my friend/parent/spouse/kid.” In that way, this sounds like really good news, right. Jesus got word that Lazarus was sick and then pronounced the good news that it would “not lead to death…for the glory of God…”. The only possible way that could happen is if Jesus left right away, in order to get there before Lazarus might have died, so that He could glorify God by healing Lazarus, right?
A version of that happened already in John’s Gospel and Jesus’ ministry.
John 9:1-3 As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.
In that instance, Jesus healed the man of his blindness and God was glorified.
Grace, do you have a category for any answer other than that? Do you have a category for the love of God being expressed and the glory of God being displayed in any way other than miraculous healing of someone you love in their sickness? If love cares, moves toward, and helps in times of suffering, what kind of love could be greater than healing? If your understanding of love doesn’t have room for any expression of love other than that, much of what Jesus did and everything He was about to do will not seem like love.
5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Wait. That doesn’t make any sense. Jesus loved these three and so he stayed two days longer?! What in the world could that possibly mean?! That might even sound like the least loving thing you’ve ever heard.
Imagine being in that scenario yourself. You’re standing there with a friend who is a doctor. Another friend comes running up to the two of you and says, “Come quickly, your best friend just got in a car accident and needs your help immediately.” Obviously, you expect your Dr. friend to take off at a full sprint. What would you do if instead he said, “Na. Let’s give it a day or so. I’ll come then. For the glory of God, I mean.”? That is, in effect, what we have here. What kind of love is that?
As you know, Grace, that’s not the end of the story.
11 After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, 15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
We’ll watch this play out over the coming weeks as we continue to make our way through chapter 11. But the two absolutely crucial things for us to see right now are that (1) love for people and the glory of God cannot be separated, and (2) love and glory properly mingled doesn’t always look like we think it should.
As I mentioned a bit ago, from these four love-expressions we can begin to see the nature of Jesus’ love for this family. Jesus’ love is best understood as the affectionate pursuit of that which is best for Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. It is not (as we so often believe today) making the biggest deal possible about them. It is not that Jesus liked the way they made Him feel. And it is not (clearly) doing whatever they wanted Jesus to do for them.
The love Jesus had for them was about gladly paying the necessary price (whatever it might be) to give them what was (truly, genuinely, and eternally) best for them. They believed that was preventing Lazarus from dying. Jesus had something else in mind. Jesus knew that what was best for them, for His watching disciples, and for all of us, was to maximize their ability to see and delight in the glory of God. And He knew a better way to get that to them than anything they imagined. And in that, Jesus loved them more deeply than they had imagined. He had an even fuller expression of love than they imagined.
The Future of Jesus’ Love for this Family and this Family’s Love for Jesus
The fact, the origin, the expressions, the nature, and finally and briefly, the future of Jesus’ love for this family and this family’s love for Jesus. Three simple, but profound things…
First, Jesus’ love for this family will reach its penultimate point in v.43 when He raises Lazarus from the dead. But it will not reach its ultimate point, it’s fullest expression, until chapter 20 when Jesus Himself is raised from the dead and the glory of God is most fully revealed.
Second, at the beginning of chapter 12, Mary’s love for Jesus will (unknowingly to her) express itself most fully by anointing Jesus for His death and preparing the way for Him to save the world from our sins. “Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” That’s what John was speaking of—looking back upon—in 11:2.
And third, this family will express their love for Jesus by hosting and protecting Him each evening from Friday to Wednesday of Passion week. We’ll see that soon as well and how it played a key role in God’s plan.
The main thing to see in each of these things is that Jesus’ love for this family was, is, and forever will be awesome beyond measure. We must learn from this the true nature of love. We must receive this love from Jesus, live in light of it, and extend it to the whole world. To be a Christian is to have this love from God and to have this love for His people. It is a different kind of love to be sure. It is a kind that can only come from the Spirit of God in us. But it is a far, far greater love than any and every other kind.
Thomas seems to have begun to get a taste of this which is why, in v.16 he said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” He was at least beginning to recognize that the kind of love he most needed and needed to give was not the kind that was most comfortable or common, but the kind that is most filled with the glory of God. May we come to see this increasingly as well in order that we might love like this as well.